I was mildly excited to go the burial on Saturday because it meant that I could sleep until 8 instead of 7. Or so I thought, until I was rudely awakened at by the radio blaring and neighbor kids with their machine-gunning French. I only call it that because that’s what it sounds like on your eardrums, no matter what time of day it is, every hoarse syllable punctuated for maximum disturbance. My host mom had told me that we would get to the village where the burial would take place by car. I naturally assumed that meant a neighbor or family member’s car. However, I was again mistaken. After having wiped the stubborn mud off of my black leather shoes at the suggestion of my mother, I immediately resoiled them trudging back into town to find a car going to that village. It did not take long to find a car already full of people. I don’t know if anyone recalls the sept places of
For clarification, I would like to stress the difference between a burial (une enterrement) and a funeral (un funeraille). A burial occurs right after the person dies. Technically, no one is allowed to cry. They say a few words, bury the person, and have a feast. The funeral happens after the burial. Apparently, waiting a year in between is common so the family can save up enough money to have another big party. At the funeral, they often times dress up in the clothes of the deceased and dance to drums. Everyone is finally allowed to cry. Then, a successor to the deceased is chosen and they have another feast.
When we arrived at the village, most of the people attending the burial were already there. The woman who died was the cousin of my host mother. She died at 37 from some indeterminable illness. We passed through a group of people seated outside, where I heard someone murmur, “Voila la blanche,” which immediately annoyed me although I'm told that it should not. We entered a windowless, large, dank room with mud-brick walls and a dirt floor. This was the first time in my life that I’ve been to a funeral with an open casket. What everyone says is true. Dead people look much smaller than alive people, as if they deflated as their spirit left them. The funeral flowers, like every other flower I have seen thus far, were plastic. Ribbons wrapped across the arrangements read “Nous ne t’oublierons jamais” (We will never forget you) and “Reste en paix avec Dieu” (Rest in peace with God). Women in the corners were singing off-key hymns, while a brother tried as best he could to withhold tears. Then the grandmother and great aunt came in and started doing this wailing chant that was absolutely heartbreaking. I almost cried, myself, even though it wasn’t allowed. During the actual service, a woman wearing a dress with kerosene lanterns on it read bible verses in French. I was left up alone in front of the crowd of people as the family took the coffin away for the actual burial. I felt out of place and uncomfortable, staring down at my lap to avoid any eye contact.
Finally, my host mother returned and we filed back into the windowless room to start the feast of grilled fish, chicken, beef, and pork, stewed goat extremities with plaintains, rice with sauce, boiled plantains, fried plaintains, and baton de maniac. I took one bite of the chicken, before I realized that it was cold and that the Peace Corps recommends avoiding all food that is not properly heated. My host mom kept slipping me pieces of baton de maniac, which is fermented cassava root pounded, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed to perfection. At least I think that's how it works. It smells kind of sour, but looks and tastes almost exactly like string cheese. My mind refuses to accept this contradiction, and I have a hard time swallowing it although I actually don't mind the taste. I tried my first raffia wine, which is white and sweet with a kick to it.
We took another crammed taxi back to my village, pausing at a roadblock for several minutes while women tried to sell us kola nuts and ginseng. Apparently ginseng is used as a cure-all elixer. Kola nuts are intensely caffeinated, bitter nuts. I finally tried one, completely shocking myself with the bitterness of the first bite. However, as I had more, it became less intense, and a strange, sweet aftertaste lingered in my mouth for hours afterward.
Wow, my first experience of death in Africa, and I haven't even been here a month. Later that night, my host mom asked me if people ever got sick in America. I told her that it wasn't the same, all the while feeling a little guilty about my malaria prophylaxis and rabies vaccinations.
On a more general note, I'm ready for stage to be over. However, we started working with companies in town, and I'm working with the owner of a laundry and general store, encouraging him to create an inventory list, a cash book, and improve his customer service. All of a sudden, I'm responsible. In fact, the Peace Corps picked me to be the leader of the small business group because I'm dynamique, whatever that means exactly. I find out my post in a few weeks! Wish me luck!